I love writing that infuses me with wonder. Fresh images, yes, startling metaphors, but please, language that moves in a brand new way. I want to wonder at the word and the world: I want “miracles [that] are treated as ordinary fact.”
Christina Olivares writes wonderful poems. They're luminous. They're odd, but still graceful. Most of her signature work is characterized by careful structural fragmentation, with phrases and words floating in space. Although the poem posted here isn't written in that style, every phrase of this poem still feels singular, isolated in its own way even while it continues the narrative. I haven't totally figured out how Olivares does this, which is partly why her work is so marvelous, and why I want to read it again and again.
The poem below was previously published in Tidal Basin Review, Spring 2012.
I. Sea Wall
The sea wall is the dividing line between Cuba and what is not Cuba. We gather, from all over the city, curl up on the wide ledge. Every night. Tonight the moon is full of sun and rising into the dark sky. My hands are full of sugared papitas. Closing in on the edge of shore, a boat whistles close. The guards stand on guard, peer over. A girl who likes girls slips her tongue against my earlobe while I dream about my lover. She reminds me of rain—husky vivid wind. But the night is so clear that instead of strings of sweet popcorn or kisses I put my hands out and gather the stars. I hear them, glass dreams beating on an old wind. It reminds me of something outside of my mind’s reach. The sea is a body that holds all of us. Hidden in her mouths, a wild singing.
II. Tin wall
They warn me he’ll throw bottles, cut me with a machete. Say he’s mal de nervios, fundido, loco. Ways of saying crazy. The colonial mansion he lives in has two bright holes the size of elephants, one a missing door, one a missing window. Each has propped against it a large rusted sheet of tin, stolen from some abandoned construction site, a signal of protection, but air and light and thieves slip in anyway. The neighbors say that he sold the iron on the indows, sold the doors, sold the glass, sold the appliances, sold the flooring my great grandfather had so diligently laid, sold the light fixtures, even sold the bathtubs.
Later, he whispers to me, the communists said once, we can heal you if you work for us. You are going crazy because you have not submitted to the triumph of the revolution. There is one working door: hinge, padlock, knob: I know how these things go: you may not enter around the tin sheath. What pretends to be a wall must actually be treated like a wall, so I knock on the door. He answers, he’s been spying from the inside since he heard me talk to the neighbor. I show him pictures of the family through a slat in the door. He is my grandfather’s brother, he recognizes the faces in the pictures. He folds them carefully, like identification papers, inside a worn plastic bag that doubles as his wallet. I enter. The house is empty except for what’s decayed and what’s growing. He stacks empty plastic bottles by the door. He hides his machete inside the stove with no mouth. He writes a letter to my father that ends with, olvidate todo. He folds it carefully and slips it between my fingers, like this.
His mind is a dismantled house. Before, he was a nuclear physicist. People have theories. When he smiles, all his teeth are missing. My touch goes through his eyes, threads along the rapid pulse of him.
Mess of flies and stink of offering in the cramped backyard, animals for sacrifice in cages. In the babalawos’ room, blue-blessed walls, sharp hunger of meat frying, beads and knives and bones and feathers and books. There are eight of us. A corner is stained in a long thin red streak, floor to ceiling.
There is a baby girl, scrubbed clean, her head is too heavy for her neck, she is Sunday-polite in her lace jumper, her lace booties, her hair taut and oiled into three even braids. She is sick, so sick that when people pass they become quiet, so sick the jumpy stray wanders inside to lay beneath the chair where her grandmother sits. Her grandmother lifts my hand to join with hers and the little one, and we rock her together and wait in the heat as if for execution.
The next day, after ceremony, she is healed, there is no trace, there was no medicine, it would have been a miracle, but miracles are treated as ordinary fact in this house. At some point they mashed coconut and put it against our heads. And we stood in circles of sunlight, quietly. Somebody wept and it pulled strings in our bodies like an old quiet thing. Hidden in our mouths, a wild singing, like this.
Christina Olivares is a poet and educator living in New York City. She earned an MFA from Brooklyn College in Poetry and a BA from Amherst College in Interdisciplinary Studies (Education). She is the recipient of a 2012 Vermont Studio Center Artists Grant, a 2010 Jerome Foundation Travel and Study Grant for Emerging Writers to Cuba, and 2008-2009 Teachers and Writers Collaborative Fellowship. She is a 2012 Best of the Net and a 2008 Pushcart Prize nominee. Her poems are published in Vinyl Poetry, PALABRA, Tidal Basin Review, The Acentos Literary Review, No, Dear, and The Brooklyn Review.
People are sometimes surprised to discover what awkward conversationalists poets can be. We blunder, we stumble, and time and again, we say the wrong thing. As with anyone, the language of poets is often ragged, filled with false starts and second thoughts. For some, writing pleases us because it's a chance for us to finally get the words right.
Sometimes the writing I love best is that which is self-consciously sculpted, that speaks from the pedestal of Art. Nicole Sealey's work always gives me that impression. One of the defining features of Sealey's style is her poise: deliberate diction, and a cool, powerful tone. Whatever their origins, Sealey's speakers tend to know exactly who they are and what they want, and they're not afraid to say so. They give the impression of being self-made, with intention - and they have no fear of heights. Sealey's poems give us something to reach for and look up to, and that's one of the reasons this poet is such a star.
The poem below was previously published in Jewish Currents’ chapbook, “The American Dream;” Summer 2013.
If you shoot an arrow and it goes real high, hooray for you.
- Dorian Corey
If Grable’s legs were billed at one million,
I can’t see mine selling for less than two.
If an unknown Norma Jean Mortenson
can become Ms. Marilyn Monroe, who
says a boy from Buffalo can’t flower
into a her from Harlem? Hepburn did
drag. Dietrich, too. But as you get older,
you aim a little lower—delighted
if a few are familiar with the myth
of you. I know many a handsome broad
in this godforsaken city fine with
just waking in the morning to applaud
What they lack in legend
they remedy with wigs and a weekend.
*Dorian Corey was a performer featured in Paris Is Burning, a documentary about drag balls in 1980s Harlem.
Born in St. Thomas, U.S.V.I. and raised in Central Florida, Nicole Sealey is a Cave Canem graduate fellow whose work was selected for inclusion in Best New Poets 2011. Winner of the 2012 Poetry International Prize and finalist for the 2011 Third Coast Poetry Prize, her poems have appeared in Callaloo, Harvard Review, Ploughshares, and Third Coast, among other literary online and print journals. She is currently an MFA candidate in poetry at New York University.
One thing I love about looking at this age range is watching people experiment. Some of us have already had great success in finding an iconic voice that fits what we have to say right now, which is fantastic, but it's immensely exciting to me to see other writers taking wild, bold risks with their work to test the limits of what their art can sustain.
The poems Rico Frederick sent me for consideration cover a lot of stylistic territory, from erasure to persona to dialogue: I can only conclude that he's a bit of a mad scientist. The piece below is a great example of this. Frederick experiments with pacing, tension, structure, texture, and voice, adding a pinch here, a dash there, willing to risk it all in the hopes of having that eureka! moment. I love and respect that quality in an artist, and I can't wait to see where these explorations go.
Four Hours At The Hospital
Aug. 18th 2010
Hour 1: It’s cold.
These emergency rooms –frozen
to remind our organs / There is a
morgue beneath every waiting room.
Hour 2: The heart monitor tells unsaid secrets.
If the green line goes flat, “What kind of dress do
I pick out for my mother at her going-away party?”
On days like this, my head signals the panic attack
but my legs are paralyzed.
Hour 3: The funeral home wakes
its grey-haired head from off my shoulder.
The unforgiving truth is – fragile is… & we, are.
While the blood is being drawn,
Tears prove six decades of armor can rust.
Hour 4: She says: Dis bed doe care if I wake up
in de morning, but if you think God put me on dis green earth
to dead in hospital ya mus-see crazy or sumthing.
Dey not going to bury my Black Ass
up in dis sick people place, ya hear meh.
Heard the news ran up a flagpole.
Got all the way to Trinidad.
All the family called, one by one.
My Dad didn’t.
Rico is a Trinidadian transplant & the first poet ever to represent all FOUR New York City poetry venues at the National Poetry Slam. He is the author of an upcoming book of poetry & slammaster of the louderARTS Project. A distinguished graphic designer/novelist and full-time art director, Rico is also a lover of gummy bears who now calls Harlem home.
Bashō has been on my mind quite a bit recently. This is partly because I'm about to do some traveling over the next two weeks, and Narrow Road to the Interior is one of my favorite travelogues, but also because I've been remembering how much I admire how spare haiku can be, saying so much by saying so little.
The poems I most enjoy by Nicky Beer are on the other end of my pleasure spectrum, however. There's a time and place for the spare and bare, then there's a time to make one's art fulgent, to dig both thumbs into the fruit of language and the sensate and let all that juice catch light. Beer is clearly a lover of the English tongue, and she wields it to display every “ornament and affliction” the world has to offer. Her poems can take some unraveling, but in the best way: they ask the reader to sit rapt and take notice. I'm so glad to learn about this poet, and I hope you are as well.
The poem below was previously published in TriQuarterly.
FROST ON THE OCTOPUS
The blue-ringed octopus is one of the most
poisonous animals in the world.
She is as at the fair both circus tent
and sideshow freak within, each blue-ringed spot
an ornament and affliction intent
on advertising, in the polyglot
speech of nature, her peculiar venom
which seizes the victim first in a rush
of wonderment, freezing his limbs in some
sudden winter, all the while a weird thrush
mottles his tongue with rime, so that his first
words of love should be perfectly preserved
for this tattooed girl, this contortionist
adrift in the lonely excess of her
power, so rife with death throughout she will
at times, upon her own breath, taste its chill.
Nicky Beer is the author of The Diminishing House (Carnegie Mellon, 2010), winner of the 2010 Colorado Book Award for Poetry, and The Octopus Game (forthcoming 2015). Her awards include a fellowship from the National Endowment for the Arts, a scholarship and a fellowship from the Bread Loaf Writers' Conference, a Campbell Corner Prize, and a Discovery/The Nation Award. She is an assistant professor at the University of Colorado Denver.
A mentor of mine once perfectly summed up why the phenomenon of hipsterdom so troubled him: neverending irony. As poets, sincerity is one of the best things we have going for us. A kind of world-weary [self-]critical voice can be quite powerful, but I think making a habit of it can make one's work less relevant.
Suzi Q. Smith would likely agree. She's among the most earnest poets I know in our age range – and being earnest can be a serious challenge once you pass the 30 mark. I respect Smith's doggedness in this regard: she goes after emotional truth, to its core, no matter how troubling the implications may be. That kind of strength and resiliency are essential to becoming a great writer, and one who stays with the craft even when the work gets ugly and hard. Smith is one to watch, and I think the poem below shows why.
My Father's Hands
The sun was 3:30 low
and so and so
had said such and such
about our mama
or our daddy
and we couldn’t say
whether or not it was true
but we rolled four deep
and were not going easy
so when the mob
met us at the corner
we were ready,
all of us
with our father’s hands
balled into stone and swing,
our grandmother’s holler
talking slick and mean
from each mouth,
our mother’s laugh,
canyons away from us.
We were born to fight.
We did not learn.
We have always known.
Even when everyone was bigger
and more, the hands
knew how to fist, the holler
knew when to howl, the laughter
knew when to grimace into menacing
This is true.
This is science.
This is the holiest magic.
One long night
so late it would have been morning,
the sun swallowed
its own face.
In fact, all of the light
had gone from the world.
These father hands were dead fish,
this grandmother holler a choke,
this mother laugh a hunting hyena.
some holler bigger
than my holler,
some laugh bigger than my
than my God
I put my hands in my mouth
reached down into my throat
I sat like this,
useless hands and holler
endlessly swallowing my sounds.
an eternity of whispers,
a heaven of new fingers,
the echo of my own open mouth.
Suzi Q. Smith lives with her brilliant daughter in Denver, Colorado. She lives her life writing and performing poetry throughout the U.S. and teaching with youth organizations in and around Denver. Her work has appeared in The Peralta Press (Alehouse Press), In Our Own Words (Burning Bush Publications), Word is Bond (Unblind Communications), His Rib: Anthology of Women (Penmanship Books), Malpais Review, Diverse-City Anthology (Austin Poets International), The Pedestal Magazine, The Los Angeles Journal, La Palabra, and Denver Syntax.
People turn to poetry for any number of reasons, but most look to our art when in the throes of extreme emotion – as comfort in response to a loss, to dramatically coax or celebrate love, or to lend strength during trying situations. Because poetry is mostly my day job, maybe it makes sense that I have inverse longings. I'm often moved more by the poem that can shock me into a new awareness of everyday existence than the poem that's built to commemorate.
Jonterri Gadson's poems are earthbound, with a compelling practicality, but Gadson lives in the visceral. Her poems are emotionally intense, but they're always rooted. Gadson uses highly controlled lines and stanzas as counterpoint to the vicious, the sensual, and the furious. The power of feeling she lends the everyday continually amazes: see for yourself.
The poem below first appeared in Callaloo.
When the sow doesn’t refuse them her sequence of teats.
When her swollen, spotted body, bristles spearing mud, permits
a dozen snouts’ pressure burrowing beneath her--
unapologetic litter of grunts, hungry self-serving soldiers,
cacophonous squeals urging over, over.
Not to protect her face from their hooves,
but that she could crush them, we pen her in. Narrow.
Leave only enough room for her to lay down.
When she doesn’t, in a quiet rage, slaughter them herself
she suffers each unrelenting mouth, she sates our wild expectations.
Jonterri Gadson is the author of the chapbook, Pepper Girl (YesYes Books, 2012). She is the recipient of scholarships/fellowships from Bread Loaf, Cave Canem, and the University of Virginia's Creative Writing MFA program. Her poetry is forthcoming or published in Los Angeles Review, Callaloo, The Collagist, Anti-, PANK and other journals. She currently serves as the Herbert W. Martin Post-Graduate Creative Writing Fellow at the University of Dayton in Ohio.
When I was a girl, I lived in an area that attracted plenty of lightning bugs mid-summer. My siblings and I watched them, chased them, and sometimes, briefly, coaxed them to land on our skin. We never trapped them in mason jars or glasses, but I like the imagery of that. Fireflies pulsing with green bioluminescence, creating gorgeous anarchic lanterns by their pulse.
Reading Ben Clark's work, what comes to mind are lovely, living lights that inspire awe and sorrow. Clark understands the dichotomy between distance and closeness very well – and the difference between beauty and brutality. He knows how to let tension in a poem ease just enough before it rains.
I like the lights Clark cages. I like how he whispers as he asks his reader to watch the glow. I warm my hands by that.
Ben Clark grew up in rural Nebraska and now lives in Chicago, Illinois. He has worked as an English teacher, librarian, tile maker, track coach, and in a microwaveable popcorn factory. He is an assistant editor for Muzzle Magazine, and recently returned from the very successful Little Bones tour with a new tattoo. His first full-length collection of poetry, Reasons To Leave The Slaughter, was released by Write Bloody Publishing in 2011. You can find more of his work here: benclarkpoetry.com
The ego is a powerful and dangerous thing. Consumers of art often want to directly associate a piece of writing with the person who created it, and often they're correct to do so. Much of American poetry has had a strong confessional bent for a couple of centuries now, and plenty of poets have exploited that aspect of the work, sometimes to their detriment.
Nandi Comer, on the other hand, makes anonymity an art. She is a close observer, layering details of the scenes she creates with tenderness and care. Reading a poem by Comer makes me feel as though I'm staring at a faded snapshot that gradually invades my mind, until I feel myself to be by her side, watching life unfold. By muting her own presence in her poems, Comer helps her reader to be similarly open to a larger view of humanity. Read this woman. Watch for her. She'll take you places you've never been and make them feel like home.
How Not to Lose the Mask: Mil Mascaras Showers after a Match
Masked wrestlers will go pretty far to avoid being
` identified and seen without their mask by fans.
-Rey Mysterio, Behind the Mask
Through the locker room,
past the champion posters, past
the black and white TV monitor,
in the last shower stall,
Mil Mascaras feels
the weight of his arms
The tenderness of biceps, the pull
of hamstrings, each sore muscle
cooled by a cement bench.
While other fighters vacate
the locker room, he waits
for the shower to warm.
He loosens each tight loop
laced up his white boot,
wonders how many blows
his back has taken, how many
slaps across his chest. Still
ringside, clusters of boys grip
tattered autographs and wait
for a glimpse of eyebrow,
for the faintest ridge of nose.
Mil Mascaras slips each leg
out of spandex, cuts tape
There are better times to leave
the embroidered M boxed
at home: movie theaters,
weddings grocery shopping. One time
while a cashier dragged his cans
and bottles across a beeping scanner,
he studied her bored mouth,
how her brow collected
in the middle of her head
as he faced her. She barely looked
in his direction.
Water puddles at the drain.
He steps under the trickling tap.
Lukewarm spray wets his threaded cheek,
runs over each stud.
His eyelets upturned accept the shower
No. She never recognized him,
even as he peered into her face,
even after he signed his credit card receipt.
Nandi Comer is currently pursuing an MFA in Poetry and an MA in African American and African Diaspora Studies at Indiana University. She has received a Vera Meyer Strube Poetry Prize, Crab Orchard Review’s Richard Peterson Poetry Prize, as well as fellowships from Cave Canem, Virginia Center for the Creative Arts and Callaloo. Her poems have appeared or are forthcoming in Another and Another: An Anthology From the Grind Daily Writing Series (Bull City Press, 2012), Cave Canem Anthology XII (Willow Books 2012), Callaloo, Crab Orchard Review, Sycamore Review, and Third Coast.
Nathan McClain is probably the poet on the list with whose current work I'm most familiar. He is a great supporter of other poets' work, including mine, and our friendship emerged from our ongoing conversations about poetry.
The quality I find most admirable in Nathan's poems is how he manages to create abiding, sustained ache. His speaker never grandstands, and never indulges in self-pity – on the contrary, his discursive interrogatives often implicate him in his own sadness. Nathan accomplishes this using understated language, a quiet voice that knows sorrow well, and accepts it. Few poets have the courage to enter that place and stay there – I think of Larry Levis as one, and Carl Phillips, often – but it's fundamental to good writing: to look and speak clearly, even when it comes to pain. Please enjoy.
Who would’ve known you’d grow so afraid of stillness,
enclosed spaces, that you’d no longer remember a time you weren’t
subtracting seconds from your life, as if each breath were held?
If you had the strength to pluck your lucky quarter
from behind your wife’s ear, would you have? Would she still laugh?
A teakettle boils on the stove, its steam enough
to unlock your lungs. Your wife reads from Robinson Crusoe,
whom you cannot help but dream of, enveloped
by endless miles of ocean. Outside, paper skeletons are strung
up on every house in your neighborhood. You hear a boy
skipping up and down the block, begging his mother,
for Halloween, Mom, can I please be a ghost, please?
Nathan McClain holds an MFA in Creative Writing from Warren Wilson College. His poems have recently appeared or are forthcoming in The Collagist, Weave, Quarterly West, The Journal, Nimrod, Toad and Best New Poets 2010. A recipient of scholarships from Vermont Studio Center and The Bread Loaf Writers' Conference, he currently lives and works in New York.